US Carriers–Police Action in Korea III


A typical winter scene aboard a US Navy carrier operating off Korea. It would be the weather over the land that would curtail operations, although any bad weather over the task force also had a detrimental effect.

After debating Korea, the Security Council published Resolution 83 on 27 June 1950, recommending that member states provide military assistance to the Republic of Korea. On 4 July the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister accused the Americans of starting armed intervention on behalf of the South Koreans. The Russians challenged the legitimacy of external intervention for several reasons, in that the ROK Army intelligence upon which Resolution 83 was based was based on US Intelligence, that North Korea was not invited as a sitting temporary member of the UN, which violated UN Charter Article 32, and that the Korean conflict was beyond the United Nations Charter remit, as the initial north–south border fighting was classed as civil war. The North Korean Army had launched the liberation war with a comprehensive air and land invasion utilising 231,000 soldiers, who captured their scheduled objectives and territory, among them Kaesong, Chuncheon, Uijeongbu, and Ongjin. Their forces included more than 200 Soviet T-34 tanks, over 150 Yak fighters, 110 IL-2 Stormovik attack aircraft, 200 artillery weapons and thirty-five reconnaissance aircraft. In addition to the invasion force, the North Korean KPA had retained 114 fighters, a further seventy-eight bombers, 105 T-34 tanks and some 30,000 soldiers in reserve in North Korea. In contrast, the ROK Army defenders were unprepared, having 98,000 soldiers, no tanks, and twenty-two aircraft, comprising twelve liaison types and ten North American AT-6 Texan trainers.

Although there were no large foreign military garrisons in Korea when the invasion started, there were large American garrisons and air forces in Japan. Within days of the invasion, large numbers of ROK Army soldiers were either retreating southwards or were defecting en masse to the north to join the KPA. However, despite the rapid post-1945 Allied demobilisations, there were still substantial US forces stationed in Japan under the command of General Douglas MacArthur that could be made ready to fight the North Koreans. On Saturday 24 June 1950, the US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, informed President Harry S. Truman by telephone that the North Koreans had invaded South Korea. Truman and Acheson discussed their response with senior Defense Department officials, who agreed that the United States was obliged to repel military aggression and to stem the onward flow of communism. President Truman announced that America would counter this aggression and support the efforts of the United Nations Security Council to terminate this attack. In Congress the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Omar Bradley, warned against appeasement, saying that Korea was the place to stop the expansion of communism. Following much discussion in August 1950, the President and the Secretary of State obtained the consent of Congress to appropriate $12 billion to cover the military expenses of the Korean police action.

In line with Secretary of State Acheson’s recommendation, President Truman ordered General MacArthur to transfer armaments to the Army of the Republic of Korea, while giving air cover to the evacuation of US nationals. The President disagreed with his advisers recommending unilateral American bombing of the North Korean forces. However, he did order the US 7th Fleet to protect Taiwan, whose Nationalist government had asked to fight in Korea. The Americans denied the Nationalist Chinese request to join the fray lest it provoke a Communist Chinese retaliation. In a move that was almost certain to upset the Navy, the Joint Chiefs ordered that the US 7th Fleet be placed under the direct control of General Douglas MacArthur on 29 June 1950. This was in direct contrast to the situation in the Second World War when both Admiral Ernest J. King, the Commander-in-Chief US Fleet, and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz the Commander-in-Chief Pacific Areas, had refused point-blank to hand over any assets to General MacArthur’s direct control, as both Admirals thought that the Army viewed the aircraft carriers and their crews as expendable. This command decision almost never happened, as General MacArthur had departed from his headquarters in Japan to fly to South Korea to assess the situation in the country personally. As the General’s transport was on approach to the airfield at Suwon, twenty miles south of Seoul, it was attacked by a flight of North Korean Yak-9 fighters. Fortunately there was a combat air patrol of NAA P-51 Mustangs in the vicinity, their intervention saving the inbound transport aircraft.

The USS Valley Forge was the first American carrier deployed to the Far East for exercises, having departed the west coast on 1 May 1950. The carrier was anchored in Hong Kong harbour for a visit by 25 June, when the news was received that North Korean forces had crossed the 38th Parallel into South Korea’s territory. Ordered to depart Hong Kong the next day, the carrier steamed south to Subic Bay in the Philippines, where she was provisioned and refuelled, and then she set course for Korea as part of Task Force 77. On board the carrier were the Grumman F9F Panthers of VF-51 and 52, the Vought F4U Corsairs of VF-53 and 54, Douglas AD-4 Skyraiders of VA-55, Vought F4U-5Ns of VC-3 for night-fighter duties, Douglas AD-3W Skyraiders of VC-11 for airborne early warning coverage, and a small detachment of helicopters for air-sea rescue duties.

The first carrier air strike of the Korean conflict was launched from the Valley Forge on 3 July 1950 in support of the South Korean troops who, under equipped as they were, battled desperately against the tide of Communist troops and tanks. In concert with aircraft from HMS Triumph, waves of Douglas AD Skyraiders and Vought F4U Corsairs attacked the North Korean airfield at Pyongyang, south-west of Seoul, while Grumman F9F-2 Panthers flew fighter cover. Tons of bombs from the attacking American aircraft hit hangars, fuel storage dumps, parked aircraft and railway marshalling yards. While the attack aircraft were hitting the ground targets, a pair of escorting Grumman Panthers from VF-51 flown by Lieutenant (jg) Plog and Ensign Brown downed two Yak-9s and damaged another. In spite of the attempts by United Nations forces led by America and Britain to stop the steady flow of Communist infantry and armour, the North Korean forces steadily pushed the defending South Koreans back into a defensive perimeter around Pusan. After this initial strike the Douglas Skyraiders from the Valley Forge attacked and destroyed the North Korean oil refinery at Wonsan. Six days later a reconnaissance flight from the Valley Forge reported that a large force of North Korean troops was massing for a further push into South Korea. In order to counter this, since such a move would completely overwhelm the remaining South Korean forces, the 7th Fleet and the aircraft of TF.77 were tasked to use all means necessary to destroy these forces.

After these opening attacks, the commanders of the USAF forces and their Navy counterparts held a conference to determine their depth of co-oper-ation. The deal thrashed out saw the US Navy maintaining direct control of its assets when taking part in Navy-sponsored attacks, although when operating in the zone of USAF responsibility the Navy’s air assets came under Air Force control so that strikes could be better co-ordinated.

On 19 July the Valley Forge launched another strike mission, although only piston-powered machines were used. At the completion of these sorties the carrier was placed on Condition 1 alert in the face of the incoming Typhoon Bill that was due to hit the ships of the 7th Fleet later that day, although 7th Fleet Command ordered the ships to pull back to the Sea of Japan, where they remained until 21 July. On the following day the Valley Forge restarted operations, launching a combat group consisting of Douglas AD Skyraiders and Vought F4U Corsairs in support of ground forces, while the carrier’s jet aircraft were tasked to attack targets north of Seoul. Missions were launched during both the morning and afternoon while the Valley Forge cruised about a hundred miles off the Korean coast. During the period of the combat operations a standing patrol of four F4U Corsairs was maintained, while a single AEW Skyraider and a single AD attack Skyraider maintained an anti-subma-rine patrol. At the conclusion of these missions the Valley Forge withdrew for refuelling and restoring near Danjo-Gunto before the carrier and her escorts returned to Okinawa, Japan, for rearming. Unlike the previous conflict in the Pacific, the US Navy did not operate a large fleet train for carrier support.

While the Valley Forge was involved in attacking the enemy, another carrier from the Essex class, the USS Boxer, was undertaking another important task –that of aircraft transport. Arriving at Yokosuka on 21 July, the handling teams unloaded 145 P-51 Mustangs for USAF and ROK use, six L-5 liaison aircraft and nineteen naval aircraft. Also on board were over 1,000 passengers destined to join various units in theatre. During the crossing from Alameda, California, to Japan the USS Boxer set a trans-Pacific record for such a journey, of eight days and sixteen hours. After unloading her cargo, the Boxer departed Japan for the return trip to the United States, as no air group was available for operational use, although this would change at a later date.

The Valley Forge group departed Japan on 4 August, undertaking exercises with Douglas JD Invaders supplied by UTRON 7, after which the carrier and her escorts arrived off the Korean coast the following day. By this time the USS Philippine Sea, of which more later, had joined the 7th Fleet carrier force, so that two carriers were available to support the efforts of the UN-sponsored forces. The Valley Forge aircraft were deployed in support of ground forces operating in south-eastern Korea, while those from the Philippine Sea were tasked with destroying targets in the south-west. At the completion of these missions both carrier groups withdrew to the Yellow Sea to conduct attacks against targets on the west coast over the following two days. By 10 August both carrier groups had withdrawn for refuelling, returning to the Yellow Sea two days later. Over the next two days the carrier air groups conducted operations along the west coast above the 38th Parallel before withdrawing to Sasebo on 14 August for refuelling and rearming. This break was short, as both groups were back on station off the east coast in the Sea of Japan, launching air strikes against targets and troop concentrations in central Korea. Only a few of these were completed, as the 5th Air Force, USAF, put in an emergency request for naval air assistance to support the evacuation of the ROK 3rd Division from Yondok when this force was in danger of being overrun. At the completion of this mission the carrier groups moved further north to undertake strikes against targets north of the 42nd Parallel, withdrawing south on completion. A refuel took place on 18 August before the carriers moved round to the west coast to undertake attacks against targets on 20 August, these being located north of the 38th Parallel. At the conclusion of these operations the carrier groups again withdrew to Sasebo.

The break in Sasebo was slightly longer this time, the task force not departing until 25 August. As before, both carriers were deployed under the aegis of Operations Order 10-50. The following day the carriers were cruising off the east coast of Korea, where strikes were launched in support of ground forces, while other aircraft were flown against hard targets such as railways and armour in the east of the country. At the completion of these missions the carrier groups steamed northwards, where they would be in a position to launch missions on 27 August 1950 against designated targets in the Wonsan–Chongjin area. After the air groups had returned, the carriers turned south, refuelling en route before entering the Yellow Sea in the night hours of 28 August. As the North Korean forces were again pushing south, strikes were launched by both carriers against enemy forces operating near Seoul and Inchon. The following day the carriers, still cruising in the same location, dispatched aircraft to attack targets in the vicinity of Chinampo–Pongyeng. The beginning of September saw further strikes carried out against targets in the same region, although there was a rapid switch of targets at midday as emergency orders were received from Commander Navy Forces Far East (ComNavFE), to switch all missions to support the 25th Division of the 8th Army, which was under pressure from the North Korean forces. These sorties started in the early afternoon and would continue until dusk. The carrier groups remained in the area overnight, restarting support missions against specific targets and continuing throughout the day. The carriers withdrew at dusk for refuelling on 3 September, although this was curtailed in early afternoon after an emergency request from Headquarters 8th Army. The task groups were in a position to begin operations in late afternoon against targets in south-east Korea. The following day the carrier groups were off the west coast, although these were quickly curtailed after yet another request from the 8th Army, which was then annulled by ComNavFE. On 5 September the carrier group was on its way to Sasebo as the weather forecast for the next few days was not conducive to air operations.

Six days later TF.77 with its two carrier groups departed Sasebo and headed towards the area of Inchon where the carriers’ aircraft were prepared for the Korean D-Day on 15 September. These would be the landings at Inchon and Wolmi-Do. The air support element undertook attacks against hard and soft targets. Not only were short, close-support missions flown, some of the aircraft were sent on long-range, deep-support missions. Over the next six days the carriers flew missions every day, although on refuelling days only defensive flight operations were conducted. During this period, on 18 September, the carrier force was increased by the arrival of the carrier USS Boxer with Carrier Air Group Two aboard.

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